Ten Things We Learned In Week 2 Of F1 Testing
From Mercedes’ ongoing to deficit to Raikkonen’s sunny demeanour, plus the team that spared Williams’s blushes, here are our reporters’ key findings from week two of pre-season running.
A major aerodynamic upgrade from Mercedes, monstrous crashes for Ferrari and Red Bull, plus two consecutive days where McLaren unexpectedly topped the timesheets. The final week of pre-season Formula 1 testing painted a dramatic picture.
What our team of dedicated reporters on the ground at Barcelona have seen and heard over the past week is by no means definitive, but we certainly have a clearer idea of who is sitting pretty and who has serious work to do before the F1 season kicks off properly in Melbourne.
After the final four days and 13,023 miles of running in Spain, here are the key things we learned about the emerging shape of F1 2019.
Ferrari is fastest and there’s more to come
Charles Leclerc’s matter-of-fact lunchtime comments after setting the third fastest time of pre-season testing on the third day of week two suggest Ferrari is supremely confident and its rivals should be seriously worried.
The 1m16.231s lap he managed on Thursday morning, using the softest of Pirelli’s five available tyre compounds, was only 0.01s slower than the best of the entire week, and was the first clear indication on the stopwatch that Ferrari will have the car to beat heading to Australia.
“Obviously like every team we are not flat out,” said Leclerc. “There is still some margin. There is a bit in myself. The car feels comfortable, from day one the balance is pretty nice, and it hasn’t changed.”
Leclerc’s comments echo the impression the Ferrari gives trackside – of a car that is agile, responsive, smothered in grip and a joy to drive.
Sure, there have been a couple of reliability niggles, but the wheel rim failure that pitched Sebastian Vettel into the wall on day two, plus the exhaust problem that caused Leclerc to stop on Thursday afternoon, are not cause for undue concern.
Ferrari has a really fast car – one that could easily have lapped the Barcelona circuit in under 1m16s this week. Vettel’s best sectors on the final day put him in exactly that bracket in fact.
New team boss Mattia Binotto is naturally playing things down, but the overriding impression across the rest of the F1 paddock is that Ferrari is ahead.
Red Bull and Honda are in good shape despite shunts
Two heavy crashes, a curtailed final day and slumping down the list of teams for mileage completed would be enough to knock the wind out of the sails of anybody. But not Red Bull-Honda, where the enthusiasm and positivity is enough to overcome such setbacks.
As Max Verstappen, who completed just 29 laps on the final day, put it: “It can always be better in winter testing but in general we had a very strong winter test.
“We did a lot of laps. Even though today was maybe not the best day but in general I think I’ve always been doing over 100 laps, so I can be happy with that.”
Life with Honda has started encouragingly for Red Bull, even though it did not set a representative lap time during testing and its place in the pecking order remains unclear.
The car looks strong on track and the detail on the improved Honda engine hints at clear progress. Some even talk of taking a big chunk out of its qualifying-mode deficit to Mercedes and Ferrari from last year.
It is extremely unlikely that Red Bull will start the year on the same level as the two benchmarks in F1, given it looks to be a few tenths off at present. But that’s roughly where it was with Renault, and broadly speaking that was the target to kick off 2019.
What’s left both parties buoyant is the minimal fuss that’s come with the beginning of the partnership, and the prospect of how much progress there is to come.
Mercedes looks slightly behind the curve
Lewis Hamilton said Mercedes could be as much as half a second behind Ferrari when he spoke to the media on Friday lunchtime. He then went out in the final afternoon session and near-enough matched Vettel’s fastest time across the entirety of pre-season testing.
That effort suggested Mercedes might be a match for Ferrari after all, despite a troubled first week and bringing so many aerodynamic updates to the W10 for week two that some were tempted to call the car a B-spec.
Nevertheless, paddock calculations indicated Mercedes stands at a deficit to Ferrari – of close to the near 0.35s that separated Valtteri Bottas and Vettel on the final day’s timesheet.
Whatever the actual case, and despite what Binotto claimed, the heavily updated Mercedes W10 looks a slower proposition than Ferrari’s SF90. It certainly seems less capable from trackside – lazier to turn in and not as easy to control on the limit as the Ferrari, which strangely did not set the fastest sector three time of the week despite the apparent strength of that car at low speed.
Some even suggest the Red Bull-Honda – also impressively driveable – could slot somewhere between Ferrari and Mercedes, but closer to the Mercedes end of the spectrum.
Usually Mercedes hits the ground running in week one and doesn’t look back, but the overriding impression this time is of this being much more a work in progress than is usual at this stage. There is certainly no indication Mercedes heads to Australia holding an advantage.
Renault hits its higher target – allegedly
Before testing had started, Renault Formula 1 boss Cyril Abiteboul described its engine gains over the winter as “the biggest” it has made since the V6 turbo-hybrids were introduced in 2014. Now, after two weeks of testing, engine technical chief Remi Taffin has backed up that claim with the declaration it has hit its “high” initial target.
Renault has trailed Mercedes and Ferrari in the V6 turbo-hybrid engine era and came under pressure last year from Honda, which had previously been cut adrift in the pecking order.
Losing Red Bull to Honda has left Renault almost irrelevant in the engine battle, as neither the works team nor McLaren are in a position to fight for victories. And we’ve heard Renault talk a good game before.
But that does not mean it can coast now. Renault admitted it set its targets too low last season, and if someone is willing to admit something has gone badly they deserve the benefit of the doubt when they start to talk more confidently next time.
Renault’s higher engine targets were a deliberate response to last season’s disappointing engine programme. Taffin agrees that it is “a big step” and that “everything we actually developed and measured on the dyno were the same as what we see out on track”.
Williams is firmly rooted to the back
Williams will find itself some way off the midfield when it arrives in Melbourne and it’s the result of its late start to testing.
It may have caught up in the mileage stakes, but late in the week Williams abandoned race simulations due to a lack of spare parts and the natural wear and tear of testing. Watching Robert Kubica’s Friday afternoon stop-start running showed a team on the back foot.
Kubica climbed out of the car on Friday and declared he knew just “20 percent” of what he needed to know in of the current car’s state and it was “far from optimal.” That has to hurt the hard-working staff at Williams, though the team had at least been able to understand the basic car on the mid-range and harder compounds.
It is firmly the 10th fastest car. Analysis of a mid-week run on the harder C2s for George Russell showed a time loss of around 1.6s over the first 10 laps on the tyre, while working out Kubica’s pace on Friday was a pointless exercise.
It looked worse on the softer C4 and C5 pace, which suffered because Williams rightly prioritised the baseline of the car, although it looks like it has some serious rough edges despite some nice bits of designs in areas of the FW42.
Paddy Lowe said Kubica finds the FW42 an improvement on last year but its design means Williams will have to make swift, successful upgrades to latch onto the midfield. That is one tall order.
McLaren will need Alonso’s help
How do you know Fernando Alonso’s back in Formula 1? You get a cracking, slightly overblown line.
Alonso’s answer to what he’ll get from returning to the wheel of a McLaren F1 car this year included: “Probably being at home is a waste of time and possibilities for everyone.”
Beyond Alonso’s affinity for hyperbole, there is substance to his ‘ambassador’ role with McLaren and the testing opportunities it will provide. After stepping down from grand prix racing after the 2018 season, Alonso’s new position will include driving its ’19 F1 car this year and helping its development for this year and 2020.
It looks like McLaren will need it. The new-for-2019 MCL34 does not appear to have made strides up the pecking order after last year’s car left the team only ahead of Williams by the end of the year. And that was hardly a major achievement given its fellow fallen giant’s woes.
Alonso’s role will include assisting McLaren’s engineers and its new F1 drivers Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris. He intends on attending or linking to as many McLaren debriefs as possible, using not only his awareness of the shortcomings of last year’s car but also his involvement in the birth of this one to identify what has been achieved and what’s still missing.
McLaren has work to do and while Alonso will not single-handedly solve its shortcoming, he will be an extra weapon in McLaren’s bid to improve.
Haas is flying under the radar again
Rich Energy CEO William Storey offered grand declarations about Haas’s F1 prospects at its 2019 livery launch, but on track the team has gone about its business far more modestly. Reticence was part of Haas’s armoury in pre-season testing in 2018, and it seems to have played the same card this year.
Taking performance runs (a theme of both Thursday and Friday) into account, the team didn’t show its hand. Romain Grosjean’s seventh place on Friday was the highest he or Kevin Magnussen ended a day.
But Grosjean’s fastest lap a day earlier came on the C4 tyre, while most others ran the softest C5. Pirelli’s suggestion of a six-tenth step between compounds seems ambitious, but even factoring in a smaller jump puts Haas up with Renault and Alfa Romeo – two others expected to set the midfield tone. It was also set in less favourable afternoon conditions, and came after Haas was delayed by an exhaust issue.
The theory Haas has something in reserve is also backed up by Grosjean and Magnussen’s top speeds on the final day. They were slowest of all over the start/finish line and through the speedtrap, but that’s out of place for a Ferrari-powered team – Friday pacesetter Vettel topped both charts.
Gary Anderson’s synopsis of the VF19 last week was that it was fast but problematic. Thursday’s exhaust issue aside, Haas appears to have sorted early reliability concerns, so don’t be surprised to find it at the front of the midfield once again.
Toro Rosso could spring a real surprise
“No nasty surprises” was Alex Albon’s assessment of the STR14 – and for a rookie driver, that’s a perfect situation. This year’s Toro Rosso looks balanced and driver-friendly; perhaps lacking the peak performance of the top runners, but the team has continued on its path of producing well-conceived chassis. Honda seems stronger too, buoyed by having a strong season of growth without the pressures experienced in the McLaren days.
Both Albon and Daniil Kvyat have figured at the top of the timesheets too, but as ever, expecting test times to be a full indication of this season’s pecking order is folly. Still, both drivers look comfortable with the car, and should factor heavily in the midfield order – perhaps even capable of a tilt at the upper echelons of the points on their day.
Technically-speaking, the car’s on a solid footing; using plenty of non-listed Red Bull parts to blend into an evolution of last year’s car, the team has tended towards the more extreme side of the new front wing developments. Reliability, thankfully, seems to be strong, and the team’s racked up the mileage to give Honda plenty of data to work with.
“The car’s more or less consistent,” continued Albon. “There’s not an area specifically we really need to target, but we need to fine-tune.”
With two drivers needing to get up to speed – one returning, one brand new – having a solid, consistent baseline package is definitely a bonus, especially in the usually-chaotic early season.
Ultimately, Toro Rosso is looking good.
Racing Point has been spared by Williams
Of the nine teams able to run a “full” testing programme, one found itself well short of the level the others were able to achieve.
This is supposed to be the start of a worry-free era for Racing Point, but clean running this fortnight was not easily achieved by the reborn Force India team – which completed only 58 laps more than a Williams squad absent for two and a half days.
Sergio Perez said mileage issues had been anticipated before testing started, but admitted on Wednesday the team’s running had been “really limited” and that he was in desperate need of a strong final day.
His teammate Lance Stroll did achieve a first 100-lap day of the pre-season on Thursday, but even then his afternoon came to an abrupt end just three laps after hitting that target when he stopped with a sensor issue.
Things didn’t start particularly auspiciously on Friday either, as Perez completed 36 laps in the morning – only seven more than the Red Bull of Verstappen that spent the final two hours in the pits. Perez did double his count in the first 90 minutes after the lunchbreak and had made a century of his own with 90 minutes remaining, but then sat out the final hour.
The car’s single-lap pace was solid but not spectacular, but Racing Point team is expected to bring a “big package” to the season opener. Even so, it needs its car to be capable of more consistent running.
Raikkonen will be hands on at Alfa
Kimi Raikkonen is thriving in his new, less-political surroundings at Alfa Romeo. And while the team might not quite be at the very front of the midfield battle, as the first test might have suggested, it still seems to have established a very solid base to work from in 2019.
Raikkonen says the positivity that engulfed the team last week remained after testing was completed, even though the lap times slipped. But it’s clear that Raikkonen’s in a better place. Even the banality of pre-season testing failed to turn him into a slightly grumpy interviewee – which he has been a fair few times in the past.
A slightly left-field example of Raikkonen’s ‘I’m doing this for me and I bloody love that there’s no politics’ demeanour came on the penultimate day of testing. He wasn’t driving, but he was hands-on – fixing his seat.
Pictures and a short video posted on his official Instagram account show the Finn engaging in small repair job on his seat, ahead of his final day in the car on Friday.
Captioned with the message “I didn’t go to school for nothing”, the pictures and video show Raikkonen modifying the left-side of his seat and operating a small grinding tool to complete the fix.
It’s often felt Raikkonen’s leading reputation among fans has been undeserved. If his attitude and actions among testing are an indicator of what to expect from him in the Alfa environment, then any ill-feeling will quickly fade.